Photograph by Juliana Sohn
Assistant Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures Jue Guo became interested in early Chinese civilizations as an undergraduate at Beijing University, where she studied Western and Chinese philosophy. But when she started working with her graduate adviser in 2001, she found herself drawn to the anthropological and religious aspects of early societies, especially through studying divination and healing, death rituals, and funeral and burial practices. Her timing was spot on—tomb archaeology was just taking off because of rapid development and construction in China.
“Many new finds and excavated manuscripts feed new lines of inquiries that shed light on many processes overlooked in the transmitted history,” says Guo. Trained as a textual scholar, she started out studying these manuscripts; but as her work has gravitated toward material culture and artifacts, she’s immersed herself in the merging worlds of texts and objects.
Her current project focuses on the tomb of a fourth-century BCE high-ranking official of the Warring States Kingdom of Chu, who was buried with seven years of his records as the minister of legal affairs as well as divinations records detailing concerns over his stomach ailments and relationship with the king. “The fascinating and frustrating part is not knowing why he took these records to the grave with him,” says Guo, who visited the tomb site in China’s Hubei Province in 2007. “They should have been part of the kingdom’s archives and the next minister would have needed those documents.” Records like these will help reconstruct how the bureaucracy worked and what it was like to live in that time. Guo’s specific project is a biography of the last seven years of the minister’s life, exploring his professional role and personal concerns about his position, health, and mortality.
Guo is eager to share her passion for early Chinese culture with Barnard students, and notes that New York City is an ideal place to delve into the subject. In her first six weeks as a New York City resident, she’s been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art three times, and looks forward to using its Chinese objects and other resources around the city in her teaching.
Early in her work, Nobel Prize Laureate and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee learned that solidarity among women is not a given—that being Christian, Muslim, wealthy, poor, rural, urban, and so on often plays a more dominant role in how women identify themselves. “During the Liberian civil war, as we prepared to join women together to protest the conflict, an essential exercise was to expose and finally deal with the differences that had prevented us [from] working together,” says Gbowee, Barnard’s inaugural Distinguished Fellow in Social Justice. “We needed to recognize and respect the differences of our identities to better see clearly our commonalities.”
Gbowee, who gave the keynote address at Commencement in 2013, considers a women’s college an ideal place to explore issues of human rights and empowerment. During her yearlong appointment at Barnard, which coincides with additional roles as a Barnard Center for Research on Women Transnational Fellow, a Fellow in Residence at the Athena Center for Leadership Studies, and a guest lecturer in Barnard’s Africana studies department, she hopes to help students expand their understanding of the challenges women face in different parts of the world.
“While the end goal may differ in various places—the recognition of rape as a weapon of war in Libya, the protection of girls’ right to an education in Pakistan—every effort is driven with the understanding that women should have the same rights as men,” she says.
In March, Gbowee will collaborate with Africana studies, BCRW, and the Athena Center to host an International Women’s Day symposium at Barnard. The event, which will take place during the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women, will present discussions about the global women’s movement, with a particular emphasis on African men’s perspectives on women’s movements on the continent.
“I think for the women of Barnard, this will be an excellent opportunity to learn how feminism influences work in other countries and how feminism is refracted by the culture in which it forms,” says Gbowee, who advocates for the inclusion of unknown grassroots women activists in high-level talks about women’s participation in conflict resolution. These women, she notes, often work under the radar and without formal education or training, but their work is highly effective because they bring invaluable insight and understanding about the culture and the people.
“The symposium is an opportunity to recognize the effectiveness of women who may not have the language skills or diplomas on their walls, but are addressing the issues that keep peaceful communities,” she says.
In the spring semester, Gbowee will co-teach a women’s studies colloquium in feminist theory with Chair of Africana Studies Tina Campt, who is also professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Bodies and Power: Mobilizing the Black Body will explore how African activists have transformed black women’s bodies into vehicles of social and political transformation.
“One of my goals in co-lecturing is to clearly link the real-world pursuit of human rights to feminist theory,” says Gbowee. “I hope my participation will broaden students’ scope of understanding of women’s status and work outside of the U.S.”
One of Visiting Professor of History Premilla Nadasen’s earliest encounters with social injustice occurred when she was 13 and visiting her native South Africa. Of Indian descent, Nadasen was unable to find a public restroom for non-whites in downtown Durban. The shock of living under apartheid stuck with her; a few years later, she became interested in social change and activism when she met a family friend who had spent time imprisoned on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela.
“He said to me, ‘You can’t sit and talk to me on my left-hand side, my eardrum is broken from the torture,’” recalls Nadasen. “This hit me in a very real way, and I invited him to speak at my high school.”
Her first foray into organized activism was forming an anti-apartheid group in high school. During her undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, she also got involved with efforts against racism, sexism, and poverty. Nadasen’s commitment to social change continues to inform her writing and research—her first book, Welfare Warriors, was about women on welfare who organized for the right to be supported in their work as mothers. She’s now focused on domestic workers and labor organizing. Her current research centers on what she calls “the real story behind The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. “The Help is a useful book, because it exposes some of the contradictions of Jim Crow segregation, but the book also portrays domestic workers as passive, needing a young white woman as the voice of their story,” she adds. The real narrative, according to Nadasen, is one of organizing and commitment to social change among domestic workers. She’s looking closely at Georgia Gilmore, who worked in institutional settings, in private homes, and also as a midwife. During the 1955–6 bus boycott, she became a fixture in the Montgomery, Ala., community, banding together with other domestic workers and selling sandwiches, pies, and cookies to raise money in support of the cause. Later, when she lost her job for her involvement with the boycott, she ran a catering business from her own kitchen, opening her home to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other organizers.
Studying the history of domestic-worker organizing is particularly interesting right now, says Nadasen. “This is one of the categories of labor that is most exploited and least protected by labor law. But it’s a growing sector of employment in this country, and in many ways it’s indicative of the future of the American labor force,” she says. “Organizing these workers—most of whom are women of color, and many of whom are undocumented—can help us think about the kind of future we’d like to have.”